Three years ago, Rabbi Michael Beyo, the East Valley Jewish Community Center’s CEO, traveled to Auschwitz in person. Last fall, he traveled there again — virtually.
The virtual tour was created by Jerzy Wojcik, who lives in Poland and has been a certified Auschwitz guide and educator for more than 14 years. The pandemic has halted travel and significantly impacted the number of people visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, and Wojcik wanted to ensure people could still experience it.
“Auschwitz education has to be continued,” Wojcik wrote in a Facebook post last July, when he also announced the formation of the virtual tours.
Since launching the project, Wojcik estimates he’s given 50 to 70 tours to people from all around the world. “I think virtual tours give a chance to tell the story of Auschwitz to a much greater and broader audience,” he said, noting that one of the tours was for a group of 250 students from India.
Beyo described the virtual tour as having an even greater impact on him than visiting in person. “Auschwitz-Birkenau is very sterile,” Beyo said. “It’s difficult to imagine that in that same room thousands of people were tortured. So it creates dissonance between what we know from history and what your eyes and your senses experience.”
Wojcik conducts the tours in real time and uses preexisting digital resources, including the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’s virtual reality panorama, archival historical footage and recordings from drone flights, to accompany his commentary. The tours also include an hour-long pre-tour seminar and a Q&A session.
Wojcik reached out to Beyo late last year to see if the EVJCC would be interested in partnering to promote the virtual tour in the United States and Canada. “I like the East Valley Jewish Community Center,” Wojcik explained. “What can I tell you?”
The EVJCC has a long history and high caliber of Holocaust education as well as established connections in the U.S. and Canada, said Beyo. “It’s easier for us to promote these tours than an individual person sitting in his office in Poland,” Beyo said.
In his first week of scheduling tours, Beyo said he has booked more than 20. The tour is available to groups with a minimum of 25 people, the cost is $30 per person and discounts are available for multiple tours and schools. The EVJCC is also developing partnerships with businesses that would like to participate or sponsor tours.
A group formed by the Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired will be going on a tour March 2, and Steve Tepper, ACBVI’s executive director, was among several people Beyo invited on a VIP tour Feb. 7 to gauge interest.
Tepper, though not visually impaired, said he knew the tour would work well for his group and clients because of its engaging audio elements and Wojcik’s willingness to provide even more description in his commentary to
“Having been to two concentration camps, nothing replaces that feeling that you get when you’re standing there,” Tepper said. “But I thought that the tour guide did an unbelievable job of describing where we were, the significance of where we were, and helping contextualize it for the group.”
The first day he sent invitations to board and staff members only, and he received more than 20 RSVPs.
“It hasn’t even gone out to clients yet,” he said. He is finding a lot of interest from people interested in learning more about the Holocaust with a desire to support agencies who are eager to accommodate the visually impaired.
Tepper is one of a few Jewish ACBVI board and staff members, and said there are lessons from the Holocaust for everyone. “One of the stories of the Holocaust is around the bystander and the upstander. And there are multiple parallels to how that exists inside our population,” he said. “Our population on a daily basis is fighting for their ability, fighting for the right to fit into society.”
Now that Holocaust education will be added to the Arizona Department of Education’s administrative code, Beyo believes the virtual tour will become a
“major program” to engage and educate the community.
“This is such a great opportunity to teach Holocaust education in general and specifically about Auschwitz, both during COVID, but also post-COVID,” Beyo said. “There are so many hundreds of thousands — or millions of people maybe — that would want to have that experience, but going to Auschwitz in Poland is not on their bucket list.” JN
The East Valley JCC will host two virtual Auschwitz tours in commemoration of Yom Hashoah. For more information, go to evjcc.org/Auschwitz-tour.